KONGRES PKR ...LIVE !!! -----> cakkk kat sebelah
Hari terakhir perbahasan Kongres LIVE .... !!!!
Jadual 3 hari KONGRES - DISINI

HOME [no2umno]

Mar 4, 2008

Pre-election hopes for Malaysian opposition

By Ioannis Gatsiounis

KUALA LUMPUR - There is a cautious optimism running through the opposition as Malaysia gears up for a March 8 vote that many are calling the most crucial general election in the country's 50-year modern history.

Cautious because the long-ruling government controls the media and school curriculum, oversees a broken electorate system tilted to its advantage, and doesn’t look kindly on freedom of expression; optimistic because Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's four-year-old government has been plagued by a series of scandals and allegations of corruption.
At the same time, there is growing anxiety about the nation’s global competitiveness, race relations are tense, and the Internet is exposing Malaysians every day to the depth and breadth of official disregard.

This election arguably represents the best chance the opposition has to weaken the ruling coalition’s Barisan Nasional (BN) stranglehold on power in at least a decade. The opposition’s modest aim is to win one-third of parliament’s 222 seats, which it hasn’t done since 1969 and if achieved would put a check on the ruling government’s power to amend the constitution.

"We will do well, no question about it," de-facto opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim told Asia Times Online in an interview. "We will deny the BN government a two-thirds majority. Now the problem is, when you are talking about the so-called elections, you are talking about a fraudulent process. You are talking about phantom voters, you are talking about [gerrymandering]."

That is the voice of a man leading the battle cry with one arm shielding his face. Indeed just four years ago Anwar watched the elections from prison, waiting out a politically motivated conviction for corruption and sexual misconduct, as Abdullah co-opted the opposition’s bread-and-butter issues of good governance and accountability to hand the opposition its worst defeat in history. The BN won 91% of parliamentary seats, although only 64% of the popular vote.

Fast forward to the present and Abdullah’s scandal-plagued administration has forfeited the right to stake a claim to those issues. Anwar is a free man and his stump speeches are attracting large crowds around the country - even though his corruption conviction bars him from running for public office until April. It is hardly a coincidence that the March 8 elections are slated for a month before Anwar is eligible to run.

Discontent over inequality, electoral fraud, inflation and a corrupt judiciary have spilled onto the streets in recent months - rare in a country where public meetings of more than five people are illegal without a permit. Two-thirds of Indians and Chinese, who combined make up 35% of the population, said they disapprove of the way the Malay-dominated government is addressing inequality and ethnicity, according to a recent poll by the independent Merdeka Center.

Nonetheless, the opposition will face a tough challenge converting popular discontent into actual votes. Despite carping about the government, many Malaysians have proven loath to vote for change. And yet Abdullah’s government has in many analysts’ opinion taken their allegiance for granted.

Whichever way the electorate leans, this election will likely have a dramatic and lasting impact. If the BN wins handily, the public will have sent the message that injustice, authoritarianism, and a political culture of mediocrity is still acceptable. It could also relegate the opposition to political irrelevance and ease the pressure on the BN-led government to change its ways.

That’s a prospect Anwar considered in his sparse office along a leafy street in the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Petaling Jaya, before saying, "I don’t share that view. I think that we are moving on. People know that; we see the crowds." Anwar is the fulcrum of the disparate opposition parties, which include the Islamist party known as PAS, the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP) and his own multi-religious and multi-racial People’s Justice Party (PKR). Anwar is arguably their biggest asset, a religious man espousing justice, equality and progressive economic policies.

Race-based bias
But walking that tightrope in Malaysia’s race-based political landscape has alienated voters as well. Many Muslim Malays question whether the former Islamic youth leader is still on their side, or if he’s bending over backwards to appease what many of them narrowly consider infidels. Some non-Muslims similarly fear that Anwar is too Islamic and that if in power he would give Islam a greater role in the socio-political domain.

Meanwhile some Malaysians, irrespective of race, question the sincerity of his reform agenda. Anwar was once a fast-rising star in the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which heads the BN, rising to finance minister and deputy prime minister before being sacked in 1998 by then premier Mahathir Mohamad and later imprisoned. As the BBC's Stephen Sackur asked Anwar after his release in 2005, "If you're telling me that over all of that time you were making protests about corruption, how come you kept getting promoted?"

Still, Anwar is an inspiration to many. He is a cosmopolitan populist who grasps both the needs and desires of common folk and the unsympathetic realities of globalization. More than any other Malaysian politician, he has laid bare official malaise, and despite being out of government since 1998 he has remained the current government’s biggest fear.

Anwar's unique attributes, however, will not make much of a difference come March 8 unless the opposition runs a smarter campaign than it did in 2004. Toward that end the loose coalition of parties is fielding one candidate per constituency so as not to self-cannibalize opposition votes. PAS, for instance, will run in mostly Malay constituencies, DAP in Chinese ones.

DAP says that given power it will give 6,000 ringgit (US$1,877) a year to poor households and see to it that government contracts are awarded more fairly. (Abdullah has not disturbed the shopworn government tradition of awarding projects without tender.) PKR meanwhile has introduced an assistance plan that would be based on need to replace the 37-year-old New Economic Policy affirmative action program that benefits mostly the majority Malays over minority groups.
Anwar says Malays will not lose out under his party's plan because a minority of well-off Malays have profited from the current structure at the expense of the poor Malays. Converting that message into votes won’t be easy, however. Many Malaysians readily acknowledge that Malaysia is endemically corrupt but often in the next breath ask, "Where isn’t their corruption?" They are often unaware of how the severe government-imposed limits on freedoms of conscience and expression - in the name of promoting peace and stability - are impairing development and competitiveness.

The opposition may get a lift from the Internet, which the government has been at a loss to regulate and is increasingly being leveraged by everyday Malaysians to raise political awareness and highlight areas of poor governance.
That being said, Malaysians by-and-large have a low threshold for hard truth. The bulk of the population with access to uncensored media on the Internet still turns primarily to the state-run media for their news - although a couple of particularly popular on-line news sites have garnered larger readerships than certain mainstream outlets.

The government papers these days are predictably frontloaded with headlines suggesting Malaysia’s economy is booming amid growing national nervousness about its underlying health and medium-term prospects. The spin is used to feed suspicions about the untested opposition’s economic credentials and Abdullah himself milked the formula last week when he urged Malaysians not to take the "risk" and "experiment" in voting for the opposition.

The BN is in particular bringing news of its Midas touch to Kelantan, the only state currently controlled by the political opposition. A win there, the BN feels, would offset the expected loss of parliamentary seats elsewhere. Many predict the BN will in the end secure a two-thirds majority, but the opposition, at least in the run-up to the polls, has reason to be hopeful.

Ioannis Gatsiounis, a New York native, is a Kuala Lumpur-based writer.


Posting terkini

Blog Archive